Boeing knew that the new CAS system it added to 737 Max airplanes could cause serious problems in the cockpit two years before the automated controls played a key role in the deadly crashes of Lion Air 610 last October and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 in March, email exchanges between its leading test pilots show.
Boeing’s knowledge of the critical safety problem came to light in transcribed messages between its chief technical pilot Mark Forkner and a colleague. Boeing provided the transcriptions to congressional committees investigating the deadly crashes.
The exchange appears to be the “smoking gun” evidence that Boeing didn’t just fail to catch the deadly problem as the company has maintained, but knew all along that it was taking shortcuts with safety in a push to get the 737 Max planes certified and in the air.
In the 2016 exchange, which occurred when Boeing was working with the FAA to get the 737 Max certified, Mr. Forkner complains that the plane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was behaving unpredictably in the flight simulator.
The MCAS is “running rampant in the (simulator) on me,” Mr. Forkner says, seemingly forecasting the plane’s erratic behavior that would ultimately lead to the deadly crashes two years later.
The MCAS interprets windspeed and wing-angle data from the exterior angle-of-attack sensors and automatically sends the plane into an anti-stall maneuver by forcing the tail up and the nose down. Boeing added the MCAS to automatically counter the excessive lift 737 Max planes could experience on the front end, caused by the placement of the engines higher on the wings.
“Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious,” Mr. Forkner told fellow 737 Max technical pilot Patrik Gustavsson in a 2016 exchange, according to the New York Times, which reviewed copies of the transcript.
“The plane is trimming itself like craxy (sic),” Mr. Forkner wrote, referring to the unexpected movements the 737 Max was making in the simulator. “I’m like WHAT?”
He also says that he “basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly.” Although it’s not clear what Mr. Forkner was referring to, his words indicate that Boeing was being less than honest with the FAA.
The New York Times notes that earlier in 2016, before his exchanges with Mr. Gustavvson, Mr. Forkner asked the FAA for permission to remove mention of MCAS from the pilot’s manual. However, he failed to tell regulators that the system had been overhauled, leaving them with the impression that MCAS was benign and would only engage in rare cases.
Later, after the FAA approved his request, Mr. Forkner wrote that he was “jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by F.A.A.” A major selling point for the 737 Max was Boeing’s claim that it required little to no additional pilot training over the older 737 models.
Boeing has maintained that there were never any signs that MCAS was unsafe. The company has insisted that the 737 Max was FAA certified in accordance with all the appropriate regulations. Yet the exchange between Mr. Forkner and Mr. Gustavvson, along with other documents showing Boeing kept the FAA in the dark about the MCAS, could unravel the company’s defense. Boeing insists it had done nothing wrong with the 737 Max because FAA regulators certified the plane to fly.
Boeing also relied on the same rationale when it refused to ground the 737 Max following the Lion Air crash in Indonesia and then delaying grounding the plane after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which is overseeing the Boeing crash investigations, said the transcript suggests that Boeing engaged in criminal misconduct.
Likewise, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Boeing executives and its board of directors owe investigators an explanation. “What these reports indicate is that Boeing’s own employees lied and concealed the truth,” Sen. Blumenthal told The New York Times. “They must be held accountable if Boeing was deceptive or misleading in failing to report safety concerns.”
There is no indication when U.S. regulators will allow the 737 Max planes to fly again, although some reports say that could be as early as January. Most U.S. airlines have canceled flights through the end of this year. The plane will still have a crisis of confidence once the FAA allows the plane to fly again. Some international regulators suggested they might take a “wait and see” approach before they allow the 737 Max into their airspace.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in the firm’s Personal Injury and Products Liability section, focuses much of his practice on aviation accident litigation. He has represented people seriously injured in aviation crashes, and the family of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes. Currently, Mike represents family members of victims in the Ethiopian Airlines crash.